July 2008

Tchaikovsky - Symphonies Nos. 1-6; Manfred; Romeo and Juliet; Francesca da Rimini
London Philharmonic Orchestra, Mstislav Rostropovich cond.
EMI 5 19493 2
Format: CD
Originally Released: 1977
Reissue released: 2008

by Richard Freed

Musical Performance ****
Recording Quality ****
Overall Enjoyment ****

Rostropovich’s set of the Tchaikovsky symphonies, taped in October 1976 and issued a year later, when he took over the podium of the National SO in Washington, was only the fifth entry in his discography as a conductor. His own note with the LP set told us he was against "computer-like interpretations" and favored individuality and "expression of the composer’s personality." While these impassioned performances may be uneven, they glow with the intensity that can ignite both musicians and audiences.

The final symphony, the Pathétique, gets the strongest performance here. This was the last work Rostropovich conducted in the USSR before his departure in 1974, the big work in his American conducting début, and the capstone of his first concert in Moscow when he returned with his American orchestra in 1990. (That live performance is on Sony Classical [SK45836].) It is outrageously split between two CDs in this set, gratuitously damaging its continuity, and so is the lightweight but charming Third Symphony. In providing new packaging and a different catalogue number, EMI nonetheless clung to the same layout (indeed, the same masters) that frustrated collectors when this set was issued on CD a dozen years ago [5 65709 2], but it’s still worth a shot.

The Fifth Symphony is disagreeably distended here (Slava’s 1988 Erato remake with the National SO has more natural momentum), but the Fourth and Manfred are utterly convincing, and the two shorter tone poems have loads of appeal. The three early symphonies are generally attractive, though the waltz in the scherzo of No. 1 needs sharper delineation, No. 2 (the "Little Russian") could do with more sizzle, and the second movement of No. 3 tends to lose its charm at Slava’s deliberate tempo. Despite the unevenness, everything here is characterized by good old-fashioned commitment and total-immersion intensity.

This is not a recommendation for a "basic" collection, but it is for listeners having more than one -- and for whom the split in the Pathétique isn’t simply non-negotiable. The LPO was at the top of its form in these sessions, and the sound is sumptuously attractive in the fine remastering. (EMI followed its release of the seven-LP set by issuing each of the symphonies on a single LP, an option worth repeating now on CD.)